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Gertrude Himmelfarb (1922–2019) cut loose from the Darwin parade before it was fashionable


Science historian Michael Flannery offers a tribute to a great woman of letters:

All of her writing career Dr. Himmelfarb was devoted to careful investigations of Victorian society, morals, and virtues as exemplified in certain eras, and important figures such as Edmund Burk, Oliver Cromwell, Winston Churchill, George Eliot, and others. Himmbelfarb retained her ability to write perceptively and compassionately about people and issues that mattered to her.

I will here add a few comments on her monumental book, Darwin and the Darwinian Revolution, noted at the outset. I think it continues to tower over Whiggish studies of Darwin such as Daniel Dennett’s Darwin’s Dangerous Idea, an odd reveling in reductionist acidic poison; David Quammen’s The Reluctant Mr. Darwin, an innocuous and uninteresting antidote to Dennett’s baneful brew; and even Janet Browne’s massive two-volume biography Charles Darwin: Voyaging and Charles Darwin: The Power of Place, a scholarly recounting of minutiae that leaves the reader wanting to know more. One could save money and shelf space by forgoing all these for Himmelfarb’s book.

She presents a complete and honest portrayal of Darwin and his theory, and her points are compelling. Not the least of those is that far from constructing sound empirical arguments, Darwin usually engaged in rhetorical sleight-of-hand where “possibilities were promoted into probabilities, and probabilities into certainties, so ignorance itself was raised to a position only once removed from certain knowledge” (p. 335). Few, except perhaps Jacques Barzun in his Darwin, Marx, Wagner: Critique of a Heritage (originally published 1941), have been so brutally honest.

Michael Flannery, “Farewell to Gertrude Himmelfarb, Brutally Honest Historian of the “Darwinian Revolution”” at Evolution News and Views

Her stature gave her protection from Darwin’s mob. She’ll be missed.


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